Undoing Global Warming

What Do We Imagine When We Imagine We Stopped Climate Change?

“The present world is often surprising, i.e., less plausible than some of its alternatives.”

That’s from Amos Tversky’s notes on the “Undoing Project” or “Prospect Theory.” It’s a reflection on Tversky’s work with Daniel Kahneman on the the tendency of humans to process their current circumstances by “undoing” something in their past that, by conjuring an alternate reality, explains their actual reality.

A classic example is the loved one in the plane crash. When imagining what could have been, it’s generally easier to imagine your loved one not getting on the plane than to imagine the plane not crashing.

The major point of this work, Tversky wrote, “is that the context of alternatives or the possibility set determines our expectations, our interpretations, our recollection and our attribution of reality, as well as the affective states which it induces.” In other words, how we understand and feel about our world is largely dependent on how we think it could have turned out differently, and how plausible those alternatives are.

It is with these observations in mind that I read about humanity’s failure to confront global warming.

“Thirty years ago, we had a chance to save the planet. The science of climate change was settled. The world was ready to act. Almost nothing stood in our way — except ourselves.”

So begins Nathaniel Rich’s long New York Times Magazine essay on climate change. In this and so many other similar pronouncements, I wonder what “undoing” is at work in the author’s head. What aspect of history are people undoing to help explain our actual reality?

After all, the world did act to confront climate change. In Rio 1992, Kyoto 1997, Copenhagen 2009, the international community was (largely) in lockstep over the need for a binding international treaty to reduce emissions. Everyone (myself included) celebrated when we passed the Paris Agreement in 2015, but since then emissions have continued to rise. We did act, but the action was underwhelming.

How could things have unfolded differently? If we date this story back to 1988, when James Hansen first testified on climate change to the US Congress, then what actions are we imagining in response to the realities of climate risk at the time? There are reasons to be skeptical that the global community was prepared to confront the climate challenge in an aggressive way. In 1988, the Cold War was still winding down, China and India remained desperately poor, the portion of humanity living in extreme poverty was over four times as high as it is today, and clean energy technologies like batteries and solar panels were over ten times as expensive as they are today. The late 20th-century rush of nuclear energy had already stalled, “BECCS” wasn’t a thing yet, and few talked seriously about solar geoengineering.

As most will concede in light of the IPCC’s recent report on the near impossibility of hitting the global 1.5 degree temperature target, it is difficult enough to imagine humanity today mobilizing a World War II-style effort to decarbonize the global energy system. Why is it so easy to imagine that it should have been easy enough 30 years ago, when the world was poorer and the solution set thinner?

Perhaps it’s because, like the loved one who didn’t get on the plane, it’s easier to imagine some vague climate action than to confront what has actually made the carbon emissions problem worse in the last generation. Without question, the two biggest things that have driven emissions up in the last 30 years are a rising population and rising human prosperity, particularly in China and India. It’s harder to imagine away these trends, the actual drivers of climate change, than to imagine unspecified action that would have somehow bent the emissions curve downwards.

I sympathize with those that insist we could have acted much sooner. Obviously, earlier and more aggressive action would always have been preferable. Hypothetically, we could have nationalized energy sectors, created mandates for clean energy technologies, and rapidly decarbonized à la France’s nuclear push in the 1970s. But even the boldest advocates of the time did not push these solutions, opting instead to draw (ultimately flawed) parallels between climate change and the Montreal Protocol or nuclear disarmament. Criticisms of the dominant targets-and-timetables approach — voiced by, among others, Steve Rayner and Elizabeth Malone, or Roger Pielke and Dan Sarewitz — were considered anathema. The idea that the problem was better approached via energy innovation policy, laid out clearly in the late 1990s, wouldn’t gain much purchase for another decade. Climate adaptation was, at the time, considered a second-best solution to a treaty prescribing emissions reductions, and, again, solar geoengineering was even farther afield.

It’s fair to say that it would have been better if humanity had found a way to rapidly reduce carbon emissions decades ago, but that’s different than claiming that we had an easy opportunity and missed it. We’ve taken a bunch of swings at the problem in the last generation, and we’ve either missed, hit a bunch of foul balls, or used the wrong bat, depending on what metaphor you prefer. So this post is meant less as a criticism or a complaint than as a question. When you imagine what we could have done in the last generation to confront or stop climate change, what are you imagining? How do you “undo,” as Tversky and Kahneman put it, the climate damage done in the last 30 years, and how plausible is that undoing?